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'Use of commercial wharfs should be subsidised by government to cut pollution'

Using canals and the River Thames for transportation should be encouraged via financial incentives, says Professor Peter Hansford

The man leading a crack team of experts trying to engineer out air pollution has said bringing once-industrial waterways back into use to transport heavy equipment, freight and spoil from construction sites could form part of the solution to the crisis.

Professor Peter Hansford, a former chief construction adviser to the government who chairs the London Air Quality Taskforce at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), said grants should be handed out to companies that make use of commercial wharfs to transport materials.

He told E&T: “The Thames has been underutilised for many decades – partly, perhaps, because of the pollution in the Thames, and there’s another big engineering project to deal with that [the Tideway Tunnel]. So, coupled with that, utilising that corridor in a clean way I think has got a lot of potential.”

He added: “We’re talking about modal shift revenue support – basically incentivising of people to move to this different mode. The outcome is moving freight off the road onto the water, reducing exposure to pollution.

“That’s a really important point. Obviously we want it to be as green as possible, but if we've got the deliveries coming down the Thames, far fewer people are going to be exposed to that pollution. Provided we don’t stick cycle paths down the middle of the river Thames, then I think this is a winner.”

Industrial use of so-called ‘blue infrastructure’ – a term used to describe canals and navigable rivers – has declined massively ever since the advent of railways in Victorian times, and it has continued apace into the era of motorways, so much so that rivers and canals are generally quieter than ever.

Prof Hansford acknowledged there were barriers to bringing the waterways back into use for transporting freight, saying there was currently “no real incentive” for doing so.

He added: “The facilities for getting from road transport onto river transport are pretty poor.”

Making greater use of water transport would require companies to fit their supply chains around the river, which would entail added cost, and there would also be additional expenditure and inconvenience associated with placing containers on and off barges.

The interim Engineering Cleaner Air report, published by the ICE, states: “It is important to note that whilst river transport does emit pollution, exposure is often less than road transport due to the proximity of road transport to pedestrians, cyclists and other road users.”

It adds: “The Mayor should seek to make it in companies’ interests to use the river by providing financial incentives such as a subsidy system. This should be done in conjunction with improving road connections to and from wharves so that they can provide a competitive service in comparison with road use.” 

Prof Hansford also called for engineers to work across disciplines to tackle the problem of poor air quality caused by road traffic.

He told E&T: “This is not a task for civil engineers alone. It is a task for engineers from other disciplines too – maybe some of the IET’s members. We’re looking at a multidisciplinary solution.”

Particulate matter from road traffic, which denotes tiny bits of solids or liquids suspended in the air, can be inhaled and can cause damage to the lungs and bloodstream.

Industry insiders have now told E&T they believe such types of traffic pollution could be tackled through engineering fixes unleashed en masse onto vehicles on our roads.

Ideas include using small, hoover-like devices to suck up and filter particulate matter. Catalytic converters and exhaust filters have already helped get a grip on some pollutants from diesel exhausts.

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